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Remembering Alan Sondej (part 2)

Terrence Rogers | Thursday, December 5, 2013

Editor’s note: This article appeared originally on the website of Notre Dame Magazine on March 18. The Observer is running this piece in a two part series, the first of which ran yesterday, Thursday, Dec. 5.
The author of this piece will give a presentation titled “Poverty, Hunger and the Legacy of Alan Sondej,” sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, on Sunday, Dec. 8, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the Andrews Auditorium in the Geddes Hall basement.

The next time I saw him was in late March. He was walking in the snow on Eddy Street. I stopped my car and offered him a ride. He had a duffel bag slung over his substantial shoulders and he said he was going to the train station, and he waited for me to say I could take him that far, which I did.
As we drove through town in my brand-new Corvette, a perk from my days at West Point where cadets were paid a salary as members of the United States Army, I found myself wondering what he was thinking. Perhaps he was bewildered at the extravagance, or was thinking of the mouths he could feed with the money it took to buy that car. I know I was thinking of those things, and feeling somewhat embarrassed, though the thought of doing anything about it was fleeting. I wanted it to go away.
Most likely, though, Alan was passing no judgment at all. He said he was headed back overseas. His work at Notre Dame was over for now. He thanked me for the ride and I wished him good luck, and that was the last time I saw Alan Sondej. Afterwards I thought he probably had been looking forward to the walk. He’d probably wanted some exercise, and yet he was too polite to turn down my offer lest he hurt my feelings.
Casey and Alan fell out of touch sometime in the 80s. And Alan couldn’t have attended their 20th high school reunion in 1969 because he had already died, in March 1988. My reaction when James told me the news got me thinking about death, because I needed an explanation for the incredible sadness – a feeling almost like horror – that I felt that night on the phone. It was not only the fact that he’d died, but the way he had died, that affected me.
We don’t generally dwell on death, but when it hits home, the finality of it can certainly affect a person’s perspective. We get notice of that finality at funerals – that someday we, too, will be there. We cry for ourselves, our collective selves, really. Indeed, at Alan Sondej’s funeral, as we later learned, his visibly shaken sister had spoken of her brother and said, “We cry today as a family, but they are tears of joy, not of pain, for being blessed with someone as special as Al.” That’s a beautiful sentiment, but it’s a hard one to attain, especially in the face of such grief.
Alan’s death was not something I wanted to believe right away. I wondered: Had he been married? Had he found a woman of a mind like his own? Had he started a family? Had he been happy? What had his life meant in the end?
Then James told me the rest: that Alan had died as a volunteer fireman, from complications from burns he’d suffered while trying to save a life in a fire. It all seemed so sadly consistent. There he was again, out helping others, not being paid to do it but volunteering, now risking his life. Once back in the developed world, where the size of one’s bank account is the most prominent statement of success or failure, Alan Sondej had quietly gone about the business of helping others, and he had found anonymity – and his demise. The man who had risked his life for another had paid the ultimate price, and in a horrible way in which he likely had suffered greatly.
Casey contacted Alan’s father, and more of the details came out. Alan had been taking graduate courses at the University of Maryland and had been working for the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department for the past 11 years. He was planning to go back overseas to teach sustainable agriculture techniques in Third World Villages. On Jan. 27, 1988, on what was scheduled to be his last night with the department, his unit was called to a house fire. Hearing that a woman was trapped inside the house, he and other firefighters went back inside to find her. A flash-over caused the room Alan was searching to become totally engulfed in flames.
It turned out the woman had escaped to a neighbor’s house just before the firefighters had arrived. Alan was badly burned in the process, and although in the ensuing weeks he appeared to be recovering, his burns had been putting a massive strain on his heart and other organs. Nearly two months later, on March 16, he died.
I’m still going about my business these days, trying to hold my own in the context of western success, now being responsible for providing for a two-year-old son, and still searching for answers. We publicize heroes and anti-heroes so well in our society that we seem to enjoy making people famous and infamous. We put actors, athletes and murderers all on the covers of all the same magazines. We reward people we admire for leading large corporations and winning elections or national championships and rarely question our values in any real depth.
Wasn’t it typical that Alan Sondej died in obscurity, that even at his high school reunion, over a year after his death, no one knew what had happened to him? It was his kind of living that could teach us something. Maybe by taking the time to remember him, we might yet learn something from his death.

Terrence Rogers is a member of the Class of 1979 B.A., 1979 B.S. and 2011 LL.M. He can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.